The US President Donald Trump’s stance on the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 can be summed up as ‘fix-it-or-nix-it’. But as his May 12 deadline to waive the sanctions against Iran draws closer, nuances have crept in and, inevitably, the North Korean analogy comes to mind beneath the cloud cover of rhetoric.
Thus, Trump touched base with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to resume conversation on what had apparently ended up as an unsuccessful mission on the latter’s part last week to persuade him to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. Macron had remarked to the media in Washington at the end of his state visit last week that he got the impression that Trump might scrap the Iran deal for “domestic reasons”. But then, following the talks with Macron at the White House, Trump also had spoken about "doing a much bigger, maybe, deal" on Iran, with the visiting French president saying a new pact must cover Iran's ballistic missile program and its role in the Middle East.
Much water has flown under the Seine since then even as Macron plunged into hectic diplomatic parleys. Following his phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May on Saturday and Sunday, the trio signed up to Macron’s plans to pursue additional agreements to bolster the 2015 Iran accord.
A Downing Street statement in London said the three leaders agreed that the Iran nuclear deal was "the best way of neutralizing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran." The statement added, “there were important elements that the deal does not cover, but which we need to address – including ballistic missiles, what happens when the deal expires, and Iran's destabilizing regional activity." Furthermore, the EU3 leaders resolved to “continue working closely together and with the US on how to tackle the range of challenges that Iran poses – including those issues that a new deal might cover.”
Plainly put, they are pushing to preserve the 2015 pact while also “fixing” it – so that Trump doesn’t have to “nix” it – by persuading Tehran to negotiate more than just its nuclear development. Macron then had a phone conversation on Sunday with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani lasting over an hour. An Elysee Palace statement said Macron proposed that the discussions be broadened to cover "three additional, indispensable subjects", citing Tehran's ballistic missile programs, its nuclear activities beyond 2025, and "the main regional crises" in the Middle East.
The Iranian accounts merely quoted Rouhani as saying that the 2015 deal is “by no means negotiable.” But, importantly, Rouhani didn’t reject discussions on the 3 “additional, indispensable subjects”. The two leaders have agreed to work together in coming weeks to preserve the 2015 pact.
Meanwhile, Macron has been coordinating with Russia. Both before and after his state visit to the US, Macron telephoned President Vladimir Putin. (Paris also let it be known that Macron plans to visit St. Petersburg next month.) Now, what lends enchantment to the view is that prior to Macron’s phone conversation with Putin on Monday, a couple of things happened. One, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Moscow over the weekend to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, amongst other issues, with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
While in Moscow, Zarif publicly expressed Tehran’s appreciation for Russian support and interest in continued dialogue. Two, against this backdrop of Russian-Iranian engagement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media on Saturday that the inviolability of the 2015 pact is a prerequisite of “any continuation and improvement of the situation” around Iran. Prima facie, it was a reiteration of the consistent Russian stance but Peskov probably also indirectly hinted at the possibility of, as he put it, “continuing contacts and continuing dialogue” involving Tehran.
A door seemed to open slightly through which a rose garden could be glimpsed. How does it all add up? Macron has covered a lot of ground since his talks with Trump at the White House last week. Simply put, he is scrambling in the limited time available before the May 12 deadline to create conditions which would enable Trump to declare victory without tearing up the 2015 nuclear agreement – that is, if Trump is interested in an exit strategy.
Without doubt, Macron wants to save the Iran deal. Macron is choreographing an architecture where the 2015 deal becomes one pillar while there would be other pillars as well covering areas such as Iran’s nuclear activities beyond 2025, its ballistic missile program and Iranian policies in the region. It is entirely possible that Macron is familiar with Trump’s book The Art of the Deal where he expounds a smart negotiating tactic of trying to improve the situation in one area by opening other areas for discussion.
Macron’s conversation with Rouhani on Monday gives ground for cautious optimism. Tehran basically harps on a single conditionality – namely, the 2015 nuclear deal is non-negotiable. Tehran’s concern lies in the implementation of the nuclear deal in letter and spirit so that the economic windfall it was expected to produce will materialize and the sagging economy gets a much-needed ballast.
France has an independent policy of engagement with Iran, which is fairly broad-based, spanning the diplomatic, economic and cultural fields, while also at the same time remaining an uncompromising interlocutor as regards Tehran’s nuclear program and with geopolitical concerns that indeed often clashed with Tehran’s regional policies (especially in the Levant with which France had historical ties.)
Conceivably, even if Trump decides to “nix” the Iran nuclear deal for domestic reasons, Macron is likely to advance its balanced Iran policy in which he hopes to have EU backing, expects constructive support from Russia and, most important, Iran’s cooperation.
Of course, the big question is whether Iran will come on board. Summing up an interview with Zarif recently, this is what Robin Wright at the New Yorker magazine wrote: “I asked Zarif if there was a prospect, if the deal dies, that Iran would negotiate again with the United States. “Diplomacy never dies,” he told me. “But it doesn’t mean that there is only one avenue for diplomacy, and that is the United States.”
Photo: The Times of Israel